They had taught her to take what she wanted

Dear Vita,

I came to your book Aphra Behn: the Incomparable Astrea (1927) because of this thing called Virginia. In the fourth chapter of A Room of One’s Own (1929), Woolf claims that “all women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, (…) for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds”. Given the book’s publication date, she might well have been under your spell when she wrote that about Aphra.

The biography you wrote about the Incomparable Astrea was short, but rich in atmosphere. It reminded me a little of Orlando (1928) in its tone: similarly to Woolf’s protagonist, your Aphra reads as if she were larger than life.  Behn was so many women in one: a widow whose husband’s very existence is a subject of dispute; a spy for Charles II, in Antwerp; possibly a colonist in Surinam; a playwright, poet, translator; and a self-proclaimed libertine, “dressed in the loose robe de chambre, with her neck and breasts bare”. She was the first woman in England to identify herself as a professional writer, and a successful one, able to make a living by her pen. And yet, as if one of her many features, Aphra is also resistant to historical recovery. Her family, her place of birth, even the spelling of her name, all are difficult to trace down. As you pointed out, we lack reliable bibliographical information about her.

You did a good job in trying to fill in the gaps. You not only engaged critically with her previous biographer, but also described the London Aphra must have lived in, and the people who surrounded her; you not only wrote short appreciations of her works, but also tried to distinguish Aphra’s reputation from the moral beliefs she expresses in some of her work (“take back your gold, and give me current love,/ The treasure of your heart, not of your purse.”). As a woman who dared to be successful in a male métier, and who dared to do so by writing about sex, she was soon branded as a woman of loose morals. Her fiction was to be inextricably linked to her private life. Instead of backing off, she protested in a feminist vein: “This one thing I will venture to say, though against my nature, because it has a vanity in it: that had the plays I have writ come forth under any man’s name, and never known to have been mine, I appeal to all unbiassed judges of sense, if they had not said that person had made as many good comedies, as any one man that has writ in our age; but a devil on’t the woman damns the poet.” Woolf’s take on this matter is nothing less than sharp: “That profoundly interesting subject, the value that men set upon women’s chastity and its effect upon their education, here suggests itself for discussion (…).”

Furthermore, Aphra used in her favour the reputation which was imposed on her. She manipulates fiction and persona, playing in the grey zone between author and narrator. In Oroonoko, she inserts herself into the narrative, not only as an author nor an observer, but as a character. She draws on the many myths about her life, to induce the readers to identify her with her heroines. She mixes up fiction, autobiography, and self-advertisement, all at once. The historical and the fictional Aphras are intertwined in her work: the narrator, the public persona and the private Aphra, all merged into one. Her early personal life was unknown enough for her to be able to blur it into fiction. Display and mask are made one and the same thing. As Woolf would do later in Orlando (1928), Aphra’s biography cannot help but also be a problematisation of the relationship between fact and fiction.

Can I say that you and Woolf were responsible for bringing Aphra back to the literary canon? I guess I can. And yet you both did so through the same perspective she had once been branded with: Aphra was to be considered important not because of her work, but because she was a woman. “The fact that she wrote is much more important than the quality of what she wrote”, you say. “She had to work on equal terms with men. She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote”, says Virginia. Aphra was not to be taken as a writer, but as a model; not as an artist, but as a fascinating woman; not as an accomplished artist, but as a promising artist who could not attain true excellence because of her need to make a living. She was not to be considered important because of what she wrote, but because she was the first professional woman writer. The emphasis of your account of her work is not what she achieved, but what she might have achieved (if she were a man?): “it is as though she had used up all her store of initiative and daring in persisting that she, a woman, might claim equal rights with the men, and had no reserve left for any further effort.”

But, dear, I am not sure if I agree with your assessment of Aphra’s worth, I must confess so. Your account seems to share the same premise of her critics: that of trying to eclipse her work through an interpretation of her life – and, in this sense, it could be just one of Aphra’s many myths. It seems that this kind of analysis of Aphra – not as a writer, but as a model – reveals more about her biographers than it does about her work, I guess.

Please, do contradict me, will you?

Yours truly,


Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Cleopatra. Piero di Cosimo, c. 1480 - 1490
Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Cleopatra. Piero di Cosimo, c. 1480 – 1490

“She had been a colonist’s daughter, she had been a wife, a widow, and a spy, she had known brief prosperity, she had lived through the extremes of poverty and despair, she had seen the inside of a London prison; now she was thrown upon the world of London, with her way to make and the experience of those thirty years behind her. They had taught her something; they had taught her, at last, to arrange her life; they had taught her to take what she wanted.”

– Vita Sackville-West, Aphra Behn: the Incomparable Astrea

About the book

8 thoughts on “They had taught her to take what she wanted

  1. I’m so glad you reviewed this book. I stumbled across a mention of it while looking for information about Aphra Behn after reading The Rover. Unfortunately I’ve been having difficulty tracking down a copy. Your review has encouraged me to persevere!


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